Montreal…meet Mumbai!

By Robert Presser on October 28, 2013

I write this on my way home from my second business trip to Mumbai in the past year.  When I visit a new country, I ask a lot of questions of those I meet about their daily lives, their opinions of their government, their perceived quality of the services they receive and their expectations for the future.  I also read the local papers.  At the end of this four-day trip I developed the following observations of similarities between our two cities.  Montrealers often joke that we are on the path to becoming a third-world city.  The reality is that we already share some remarkable traits with Mumbai.

Development planning and political interference:

Mumbai is in need of massive infrastructure renewal, and the complicated layers of local and regional bureaucracy often result in long delays, cost over-runs and skewed priorities due to political interference.  Sound familiar?  Mumbaikers are about to get a brand new airport opened next to the old one, but the flyovers designed to deliver passengers to the new terminals are far from complete.  They are also getting their first light-rail type metro system (though it is not underground), but many areas that deserve service will wait far longer than others due to the relative influence of the local and state politicians involved in the file.  The state of Maharashta contributes in some way to most, if not all of these major projects as well as the national government and there is constant bickering over who will pay, how much, and who gets the credit.  Replace the words “flyover” with “Champlain Bridge” and you get the idea.  The metro situation needs no further explanation.

Housing safety inspections:

I am in no way asserting that Montreal has slums as Mumbai does, but one step up there is a large stock of both public and privately-owned social assistance housing that is in horrible shape and the required improvements are not being carried out.  This week Mumbai’s government announced the creation of a crack, inter-departmental multi-disciplinary team to undertake a blitz of inspections of these accommodations and compel their owners or administrators to make repairs.  As far as I know, no effort of the same magnitude exists in Montreal to tackle, notably, the select few apartment building owners of Cote des Neiges (and elsewhere) who systematically ignore critical safety and structural issues.  I propose that Montreal send a delegation to Mumbai to perform a survey of their efforts.

Corruption, bribery and construction fraud:

Montrealers, we are not alone.  The situation is far worse in Mumbai.  The political intervention in the property market is as such that even a private developer cannot undertake a project without the assistance and partnership of a local political actor.  Otherwise, the developer will not get permits, services, access roads and other necessary infrastructure to begin work.  There are many half-built high rises in Mumbai that corrupt politicians began to build with black money, and then abandoned when the economy softened last year.  Because the sources of funds and in some cases the titles of ownership are unclear there is no assurance that these sites will be completed once the economy improves, nor can they be easily sold to another entity.  Montrealers will remember the empty shell of the Holiday Inn hotel on Dorchester (in 1976) that was later completed as the Sheraton.  Imagine passing one of these in far worse shape every ? kilometer and you get the extent of the problem.

On the civil works side, Mumbaikers complain of poor planning where a road is dug up three or four times by different departments because their work was uncoordinated.  The merchants of lower St. Laurent certainly understand this problem.

Public resignation:

Much like Montreal’s problems with corrupt construction practices, Mumbaikers shrug their shoulders, complain that no one can change the system and try to work around it as best they can.  The Charbonneau Commission shows us that change, painful and disruptive as it may be, is possible.  Mumbai can learn from Montreal that eventually the political will, fueled by emergent public outrage, forces a change in the system.  There are national elections in India in 2014 and there is hope that change at the very top will trickle down to all levels of government.  For Mumbaikers that change cannot come soon enough.

So, great cities can wax and wane alike even when separated by thousands of kilometers.  I will provide readers with an update after my next trip.


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